Approximately two years ago, the United States Department of Defense (DoD) wrapped up its Wideband Analysis of Alternatives (AoA), which was intended to determine the best path forward for the military’s satellite network architecture. As Warren Ferster reported on the GovSatReport following the conclusion of the AoA, the DoD’s study found that the military, “…should continue to use a mix of military- and commercially owned satellites to serve its wideband communications needs, even as it requires increasingly higher levels of protection against jamming and other threats that have emerged in recent years.”
A lot has happened since then.
First, there was the creation of an entirely new branch of the military dedicated to the space domain – the United States Space Force. That organization was tasked with recruiting and training a new generate of warfighter capable of defending the nation’s interests in space. It was also tasked with the acquisition of space systems and resources for the rest of the DoD – shifting the authority to assess and acquire commercial satellite and other services from DISA to the new Space Force.
Following the creation of the Space Force, its inaugural Chief of Space Operations, General John W. “Jay” Raymond, issued the, “United States Space Force Vision for Satellite Communications.” This white paper laid out a strategic vision and roadmap to a future SATCOM architecture that is, “…ubiquitous, resilient and dynamically responsive to the immediate needs of U.S. and allied forces.” In a press release accompanying the white paper, the Space Force claimed it would, “…continue engaging commercial partners to evaluate opportunities that may complement or possibly replace portions of a traditional military SATCOM purpose-built system.”
All of these advancements and revelations over the course of the past two years all point to one thing – the creation of an integrated SATCOM enterprise and architecture that utilizes MILSATCOM resources and commercial SATCOM services, together, to meet the military’s bandwidth and communications requirements. So, how close are we to that reality, and what’s standing in the way?
Breaking down the siloes
Unlike with MILSATCOM, the COMSATCOM services that would be integrated into this satellite architecture are offered from a number of disparate satellite operators. And those individual satellite providers represent a collection of siloes that aren’t always compatible. They each have their own constellations, satellites and technologies, and there is currently no way for the military to get a common operating picture. Worse, there’s currently no simple and easy way to roll from one satellite network to another on existing terrestrial hardware.
When we think about the reason driving the military to incorporate COMSATCOM into their integrated satellite architecture, it becomes increasingly apparent why this is a problem. The military needs the capability to rapidly restore the satellite communications that provide a tactical and operational edge if it is ever denied or disrupted. Should an adversary – knowing full well the capabilities that satellites deliver to our military – take steps to deny access to a MILSATCOM satellite, like a satellite in the WGS constellation, the DoD wants to be able to fill that void with a commercial satellite service. But there’s currently no simple way to do so.
If a WGS satellite were jammed right now, there is no immediate way to fill that communications gap with a commercial service without switching terrestrial hardware. With most commercial satellites operating on different frequencies than WGS, with the notable exception of GovSat-1, hardware compatibility between COMSATCOM and MILSATCOM often proves to be an obstacle in the way of interoperability. Beyond terminals and antennas lays the second obstacle of resource management. The lack of a common operating picture would make it difficult for the military to orchestrate services between available commercial and military satellites.
If an integrated satellite architecture that combines MILSATCOM and COMSATCOM is going to be a reality in the DoD, which is what the military has publicly advocated for, then these problems need to be addressed. And that’s why the FMI (flexible modem interface) and EM&C (enterprise management & control) concepts were created.
Small steps towards big change
What may seem like one big challenge – seamless movement or roaming from one satellite constellation to another – is actually multiple, smaller problems. As discussed, there is the situational awareness issue, as well as a terrestrial hardware and terminal issue which both need to be addressed. And, in typical DoD fashion, they need to be addressed methodically, deliberately and conservatively. After all, it’s the lives of warfighters that are in the line.
In an attempt to prove that these siloes can be broken and that the military can get the interoperability and common operating picture that they need to lean fully into an integrated satellite architecture, they’re working with industry partners to conduct pilot programs. These pilot programs seek to isolate the individual challenges and assess the potential collaborative approaches to overcoming them.
One of these concepts or pilot programs involves the FMI. This pilot program seeks to overcome the terrestrial hardware challenge that currently hinders seamless roaming from one satellite system to another. The pilot program seeks to demonstrate the ability to reprogram terminals and reposition antennas on command from the government network operations system to enable the seamless transition from connecting to one satellite system to another.
Three different companies were awarded contracts to demonstrate FMI capabilities. These companies – including Rt Logic, Hughes, and Knight Sky – partnered with satellite operators to build capabilities, hold workshops and conduct demonstrations of the technology in action. All three were successful in enabling roaming between networks. The demonstrations ultimately illustrated that a terminal or network can be reconfigured in response to interference, congestion, or changing mission needs in a matter of minutes as opposed to weeks or months, as is currently the case.
The other pilot program involved EM&C prototypes designed to deliver situational awareness and some command capability to the military. This concept creates standard interfaces between all components of the commercial systems, giving military users the ability to develop a common operating picture for an integrated satellite architecture, and perform some basic management and orchestration of satellites.
Companies participating in the EM&C pilot were tasked with enabling the following capabilities that would empower the military to roam between satellite networks:
- Planning Capability
- Brokering Capability
- Orchestration Capability
- Pool Management Capability
- Situational Awareness Management
- Security Management
- Integrated Data Management Environment
Together, these capabilities will enable the military to register terminals, broker bandwidth and capacity on commercial satellites, interface with commercial operators to configure service, track pool usage and manage both situational awareness and network security. This would effectively enable military operators to identify, acquire and configure the COMSATCOM services that meet their requirements should they have to roam from MILSATCOM resources to COMSATCOM services. This pilot is ongoing.
So, where are we today? We’re closer. Through the wideband AoA and the Space Force’s strategic vision, the military has confirmed that an integrated satellite architecture that utilizes both MILSATCOM resources and COMSATCOM services is the future. These pilots are important first steps in eliminating the large barriers to making that integrated architecture a reality. But we’re still a few years away.
To make this integrated architecture happen, there needs to be a sense of urgency, a focus and a drive within the military that we have yet to see, but is emerging. More funding is needed. More attention and support from senior-level military leaders is necessary. The timing for all of this to come together couldn’t be better. Once it does, the integrated satellite architecture and all the benefits it will deliver to the warfighter won’t be far behind.